It will take more than a cabinet shuffle for Ford to shake Greenbelt controversy

The Premier has proven himself to be agile in the past, and he’ll need to do so again. Photo credit: Twitter/Doug Ford

 

It just keeps going from bad to worse. The controversy over developing some land in the protected Greenbelt, continues to dog the footsteps of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government.  

After weeks of unflattering headlines, Housing Minister Steve Clark finally stepped aside and the government announced it would review the lands in question.  

The Premier and his new minister, Paul Calandra, then poured gas on the fire, erasing any benefit the resignation might have given the government in containing the scandal. They announced that development would continue on the designated Greenbelt lands, despite the review and that even more of the protected land could be identified for development.  

The issue is also beginning to affect the public’s opinion of the government and the Premier according to two recent polls from Angus Reid and Abacus Data.  

Tory support among committed voters dropped seven per cent in the past few weeks in the Abacus poll. At 34 four per cent, that is still majority government territory if an election were to be held today and the lost support is not shifting to the Opposition parties. The Liberals, for example, are still at 28 percent.   

Angus Reid’s poll shows Ford’s personal support has also dropped five points to 28 per cent, his lowest ranking since his election in 2018.

Polls can be notoriously volatile but the trend lines from two reputable pollsters are flashing danger signs for the government.  

When Ford ran into public opposition during the COVID pandemic over his shutdown orders, he reversed course, took responsibility, and apologized. The public rewarded him with another majority government victory last year. Whether or not he can replicate the move again remains to be seen.  

“Ford is really good at being able to pivot and apologize and people kind of forgive him,” Abacus pollster David Coletto was quoted as saying. “I don’t know whether they will forgive him for this.”

The fundamental problem is that the issue threatens the Premier’s populist brand of looking out for Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch. The perception painted by both the recent Auditor General’s report and the Integrity Commissioner is that he allowed special treatment for wealthy developers, at the expense of taxpayers and the environment and went back on his word not to touch the Greenbelt lands.

What transpired may not have been illegal or actually broken any conflict laws – the RCMP have yet to opine on whether a criminal investigation is warranted, and the Integrity Commissioner is still looking into various conflict issues – but it is the perception of flouting due process and allowing his government to be inappropriately influenced that is eating away at the Premier’s former Teflon shield. 

Doubling down on the government’s current approach is a unique crisis management strategy but it is clearly not working. Nor are their attempts to deflect attention by making other housing announcements, worthy as they may be in their own right. 

For example, this week, Ford promised to donate land and work with municipalities to create affordable housing at a cost of $500,000 each by building “modular” homes, buildings that are manufactured in pieces at another location and then assembled on site. The approach has proven successful with Habitat for Humanity.  

Whether it works or not in this case remains to be seen as few details were available at the announcement. 

However, even its success is unlikely to cool the Greenbelt controversy. It is like quicksand, and it has dragged the government in so deep that only a major reversal of some kind will work.  

When the Legislature returns later this month, you can bet both the media and the Opposition parties will turn up the heat with repeated questions and fresh allegations about impropriety. The government’s entire agenda will be seriously overshadowed.

The Premier has shown a remarkable ability to learn on the job – a key requirement for all newly elected leaders as there really is no advance training. The day you win the election, you are in the deep end of the pond.

He needs to demonstrate that trait now and find a way to put this controversy to rest. Otherwise, it will undermine not only his badly needed housing agenda, but the government’s entire program.      

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